I used to push my shopping cart down the makeup aisle, watching the pinks and plums and reds flash by, wishing I could stop and drink them in but terrified to be seen doing it. I’d never bought lipstick before. I’d never bought any makeup before. To me, they’d always been forbidden, something I could barely look at, let alone touch.
I knew I was a woman for a long time before I decided to transition. Those years were torture, every day playing the part of a man, knowing it was a lie, paralyzed by the thought of anyone finding out, and of ever doing anything about it.
When I finally decided I had to come out as trans, one of my very first thoughts was makeup. This is the kind of thing that bigots scoff at as the trappings of femininity, but those people don’t understand how important makeup can be. I didn’t understand it entirely myself, even as I entered the MAC store for the first time, with my friend Karina at my side. I was presenting entirely male at the time; there was nothing about my appearance that implied my womanhood. I was very good at hiding.
I almost bailed. Karina had to drag me into the store, where my mind went suddenly blank when the clerk approached us. Karina pointed at me and said, “She has never bought makeup before and needs help picking some things out.” I just stood there, trying to breathe. Nobody had ever referred to me as “she” before.
For me, makeup wasn’t about hiding my appearance; it was about uncovering who I truly was.
“Hang on,” the store clerk said. She returned with a tall, gorgeous blonde woman named Shannon, who whisked me away to her chair.
I’d worn lipstick before, sneaking it from my mother’s vanity as a kid when no one was around, but never as an adult. And now here was Shannon holding out a tube of something called “Twig” and asking me to try it on.
It changed my face.
I have great lips; it’s just a fact. My cupid’s bow is pronounced, and my lower lip is big and pouty. When I saw the brownish-pink nude of Twig spread out across them, I caught a glimpse of a woman looking back at me in the mirror, maybe for the first time.
But because I mostly still presented as male, other customers were staring at me. I tried to act like it didn’t bother me, like this was something I did all the time and it was totally natural. But inside I was thinking, “I can’t do it. I can’t transition. It’s too hard. It’s too scary.”
I looked at Shannon and she could see the tears in my eyes. “Does it ever get easier?” I asked, now crying for real.
She gave me a gentle smile that contained a world of emotion. “Yes, honey. It does. I promise.” She hugged me and I left the store feeling hopeful.
Some of the most important changes in life are the ones we don’t notice happening.
A few months later, I started living full-time as a woman. In those early months, makeup was my shield against the world. Without makeup, I was likely to be gendered as male and called “sir.” But add some eye shadow and lipstick, and suddenly I became “ma’am.” For me, makeup wasn’t about hiding my appearance; it was about uncovering who I truly was.
I didn’t wear Twig every day, but I wore it most days. Twig was comforting, with its particular taste and consistency — and that made me feel safe.
As the months slowly passed, so did my transition. Hormones began to reshape the contours of my face in subtle, but important, ways. My hair grew and I colored it blonde. I got laser hair removal on my face to remove the telltale shadow of beard from my cheeks and chin. The way I moved, the way I spoke, the way my expressions played across my face underwent an evolution. I transitioned.
I caught a glimpse of a woman looking back at me in the mirror, maybe for the first time.
More than a year later, I don’t wear makeup quite as often as I used to. When people look at me now, they see a woman. I no longer need makeup to define me as such to the rest of the world — but I still love it.
A few days ago, I brushed on a very subtle eye and then reached for my old friend, Twig. I removed the lid and twisted the base and saw something I’d never seen before: the bottom of the tube. I managed to awkwardly coat my lips with the tiny wedge of product remaining and then stared at what was left. It was so small.
I took a picture of it and Tweeted about the day I got it, and Shannon, and how she promised me things would get better.
When you put on lipstick, it doesn’t look like anything has happened to the lipstick itself. It gets worn down slowly, over weeks and months. You can’t see the change happening before your eyes. You only notice much later, when things have become noticeably different.
So much in life is like that, including gender transition. I took hormones, I grew out my hair, I got laser hair removal, and I wanted all of the big changes to happen overnight. But they didn’t. For a long time it felt like I was doing all this stuff and nothing at all was happening. It was so easy to get discouraged when I kept showing up day in and day out and taking the same pills and looking in the same mirror and putting on the same lipstick and I just wanted something to be different. Of course, it was changing. But some of the most important changes in life are the ones we don’t notice happening.
I wish I could say that life is perfect now, but it’s not. Being trans is hard. Coming out can be costly; it cost me friends, a couple of loved ones, and even my job. But even through all that, it’s worth it. It’s so worth it. Because the falsehood that I endured for so long is over — and I can finally get on with my life. It’s okay that there’s still work to be done.
The other day, I cracked open a new tube of Twig. It still has the stiffness of a new product; it hasn’t conformed to my lips yet. I wonder what this tube and I will go through together, and who I’ll be when it’s gone in turn.
I can’t wait to find out.